How we know if a storm surge is coming

The technology behind storm surge protection


September 5, 2019 

Before Hurricane Florence, USGS installed sensors along the coast

With hurricanes getting more powerful and sea levels rising, there’s a new high tech effort to better understand storm-tides, or what is more commonly known as storm surge. And it’s starting along the North and South Carolina coast. Hurricane response crews from the U.S. Geological Survey have installed 160 storm-tide sensors at key locations along the coasts of the Carolinas. USGS officials are consulting with federal and state partners about the need for similar equipment for other areas along the mid-Atlantic åcoast.

The sensors were deployed just before Hurricane Florence struck last year. The program has been refined, as models showed Hurricane Dorian would threaten the coast. The storm-tide sensors are housed in vented steel pipes a few inches wide and about a foot long. They are installed on bridges, piers, and other structures that have a good chance of surviving the storm. The information the sensors collect will help define the depth and duration of a storm surge, as well as the time of its arrival and retreat. That information will help public officials assess storm damage, discern between wind and flood damage, and improve computer models used to forecast future floods.

Extra sensors deployed

In addition to storm-tide sensors, 25 rapid deployment gauges are being installed at critical locations that may be impacted by storm surge or floodwaters, but where the USGS does not have permanent sensors. The USGS is coordinating with the National Weather Service, FEMA, and state and local agencies to put the rapid deployment gauges in places with the greatest need. These specialized gages can be quickly installed on bridges to provide real-time information on water levels. They will augment a network of 231 streamgages in North Carolina and 112 streamgages in South Carolina that provide critical information to the National Weather Service, FEMA and other USGS partners involved in issuing flood and evacuation warnings and in coordinating emergency responses to communities.

Long-term research

The USGS studies the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms to better understand potential impacts on coastal areas and the long term prospects of coastal erosion and coastal change. Information provided through the sensor networks provides critical data for more accurate modeling and prediction capabilities and allows for improved structure designs and response for public safety.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.